Setting healthy boundaries can become a concept more than it is a practice. Something that being around horses has taught me is that my ideas about my boundaries are not actually boundaries themselves. Confusing?
Let me try to explain. When I think about boundaries, I think of respect. I have the belief that I respect myself as well as others around me… don’t I? Well, here’s the thing: not necessarily.
Healthy boundaries are the way that we respect and protect ourselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Boundaries are also how we respect others – by giving them clear, natural, and reasonable parameters for being around us. However, most of us were not raised with a real awareness of what it means to actually set or hold a boundary (intentional or physical), nor were we given any tools to accomplish this.
I challenge you to now ask yourself, am I setting boundaries clearly, naturally, and reasonably? Most of us would have to say, in all honesty, no.
First of all, there’s a negative undertone we’ve given to the idea of boundaries that it’s impolite, too blunt, or harsh to set them clearly. Given the current relevance of the #MeToo movement, hasn’t it become painfully clear that we have not prioritized teaching or setting healthy boundaries as a society? As a young girl, I remember feeling confused by what seemed like a contradiction: protect yourself but be polite. How was I to accomplish both things at the same time? When we fall into the trap of thinking it’s impolite to set boundaries, we miss the point of them altogether.
My horses provide continuous, in-the-moment feedback for how clear and fair my boundaries are or aren’t (or if they even exist). If I’m being totally transparent, often times the dial is leaning towards… not great. Because this concept is a fairly new one in my life, and I haven’t been using these tools for many years, it’s really a practice that needs constant attention.
Sometimes clients watch my horses and think “Tango is really quite rude and pushy toward Kamali”. In my little herd, Tango is the dominant one – he keeps Kamali from food and he tells Kamali where to go. It’s very natural for us to watch their interactions through the lens of our societal upbringing, and think the same applies in their world. The truth is, they’re living in a much more respectful way than you might think.
What we might perceive as Tango being “rude”, is actually him being very clear about where his boundaries are. If he gives Kamali an intentional/energetic boundary, and Kamali ignores it, then he escalates that boundary to physical form. Maybe it starts just as a glance, then it becomes a bite or a kick, sometimes he even chases him off. Now wait just one minute, don’t let this fool you, Kamali is not poor or pathetic. Kamali is actually our lead horse. Kamali is more sensitive and aware of his surroundings, he’s the sentinel watching over the herd, and he leads the animals from danger to safety.
The thing is, in a functional herd, everyone plays an equally important role. The roles are set by very clear boundaries that are then challenged or respected by other members of the herd. Before Tango joined our herd, Kamali was used to being the lead and the dominant role. But quite honestly, it seems like Kamali prefers things now that Tango has taken one of those away from him. He seems less stressed, and more clear and safe in his current position next to Tango.
I’d also like to point out that after a boundary has been crossed over – a bite, kick, or even a chase – it’s never enough to sever their strong bond. They do not hold a grudge or turn it into something it’s not, they go back to grazing together and all is well (and CLEAR).
So what are we afraid of? Rejection? Abandonment? Well…yes, we are. But we can change that!
You’ll learn really quickly with a horse that showering them with physical affection is not a way to get them to stay or feel comfortable around you. However, when I set clear boundaries with my intentions and my body language, I feel safer and closer to them. Not only do the animals respect my space, but they actually seem to want to be with me even more. I become an accepted and functioning part of the herd.
Isn’t this a great metaphor for life?
Here are some tools you might start using to practice setting healthy boundaries:
Imagine a precise bubble around your body keeping you safe – it can be as close or as far away as you need it to be in that moment (for my Harry Potter fans, imagine a patronous charm!)
If needed, escalate your intentional bubble to a more physical one by actually moving your body.
State your feelings and boundaries out loud in an honest, clear, reasonable way (unafraid of the response that you’ll get).
When you’re ready to take these teachings to the next level, come to my farm and practice with the ultimate boundary-teachers: horses!